Barrelhouse Blues

The Bearcats Blues Band 
At the Malt Shovel Tavern, Northampton
6 June 2013

I popped around to my local post office on Wednesday morning and ran into a friend who was a regular Malt Shovel’er. We stopped to chat for a few moments and invariably the conversation turned to the evenings gig at the Malt Shovel Tavern.

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“I might go as I haven’t been for a few weeks” he told me.

“Me neither” I replied. “It’s not one of my favourite bands though, but I’ll probably go to socialise and catch up with some of my friends."

“Yeah” he affirmed, rather insipidly. “It’s becoming a bit much of the same old stuff.”

I bade him adieu but his words continued to echo in my head.

The same old stuff?

It’s true that most of the bands on the venue’s published gig-list flyer are predominantly re-bookings from the previous year. And although we do occasionally get a “new” band that hasn’t played there before, for the most part it’s the “same old bands.”

But even the perennial Mick Pini is capable of pulling out a few new tricks from his musical black box. And if you’ve read any of my recent reviews you’ll no doubt realise that the local blues gig is certainly far from becoming a tedious repetition of the “same old stuff.”

However I had seen The Bearcats Blues Band a couple of times before, and from recollection, I was not impressed. For once, I was inclined to agree with my friend.


The band had already started when we arrived. A few old friends who I hadn’t seen for some time were grouped at the back of the venue, so I joined them for a chat. But my ears soon pricked up at the strains of some very cool Ray Charles-style blues piano emanating from the stage. Could this be the same band that I'd heard before?

The personnel were certainly the same, but somehow they sounded much better than I remembered. I was obliged to dump my prepossessions about the band as quickly as possible and enjoyed their rendition of Willie Dixon’s “Beer Drinking Women.” It was the first in string of retro-style blues covers that propitiously left my parti pris shattered in a thousand pieces on the floor!

Standing out from the crowd

Now I don’t know how you define your blues, and there’s plenty of discussion and debate about the different blues styles. But for me there’s a clear distinction between the guitar-led Chicago style blues from people like BB King, Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters, where the piano just tinkles away in the background, and the more jazz-influenced piano-driven New Orleans style popularised by the likes of Ray Charles and Fats Domino.

There’s no shortage of modern-day exponents of the former style of playing, and I might even suggest that most British blues fans more often than not will think Chicago when referring to blues music. But the Bearcats’ musical style fell into the latter category, and it was this particular characteristic that made them stand out from the crowd.

The band’s repertoire is steeped in the blues traditions of the 40’s and 50’s (there was little reference to anything later than 1959), and they blasted out one period gem after another. Their set list read like a history lesson of the blues, with many of the great blues piano player featured, including Memphis Slim and Eddie Boyd.

Forget about wah-wah and overdrive pedals, flashy guitar and extended drum solos. This was easy blues, drifting through laid back melancholy ballads that spoke intimately of relationship problems to soaking boogie woogie stomp blues.

The  piano led the way, and the rest of the band fell in behind. Clean unadulterated Stratocaster guitar sound and upright bass providing an apposite period touch, supporting and enforcing the imagery of a warm summer night in a barrelhouse blues joint somewhere in Louisiana. It was easy to forget that we were still here in Northampton, England recovering from one of the coldest months of May in 50 years.

Surfing the blues

The Northampton real ale pub stocks a number of specialty brews, including a fairly potent traditional cask cider rated at 9% ABV. An unwary drinker might down two or three of these before he/she realises “Houston, We have a problem!” Add a little wacky baccy to the mix and you could end up way out on a limb and hanging by a tread.

The drummer’s solution was to trust his automation systems and jump. And boy, did we strike lucky. The erstwhile rather sedate drummer was riding on the crest of a wave in a display of superb instinctive reactions and well-honed drumming expertise. It was a precarious balancing act, but
like a seasoned surfer, he pulled it off admirably.

“I fell over a few times” he acknowledged metaphorically to my surfing analogy
after the gig.

“Yeah, but you rode some really big ones too” I replied.

It made a refreshing change from the rather contrived and deliberate drumming performances often seen here at the Malt Shovel Tavern.

Better for it

Reflecting on the bands performance the following day, I recalled my friend’s earlier remark outside the post office. He hadn’t showed up at the gig, but boy, was I glad that I had?

I learn my lessons well. Each new day brings new adventures, new challenges and new opportunities. Don’t forgo these experiences by rejecting what’s on offer because of some previous experience, expectation or demand. Grab each one as it presents itself, and you’ll be the better for it.


A dearth of online information about the band leaves me with little choice but to omit band members names etc. If anyone can fill in the gaps please do so in the comments boxes below, and it will be much appreciated.

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